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Cleanup under way at site of Williston oil well blowout


Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist
Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Department of Health Division of Water Quality, oversees the cleanup of an oil well blowout near Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications

WILLISTON, N.D. - Cleanup crews baled contaminated vegetation, scraped away affected soil and power-washed equipment Monday after an oil well blowout south of here that sprayed oil and salt water into nearby fields.

Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the death of a worker who was struck by a pickup as a worker drove it away from the spewing oil.

The blowout, which sprayed 400 barrels of oil and 400 barrels of produced water used for hydraulic fracturing, is not believed to have contaminated water sources, said Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the North Dakota Department of Health Division of Water Quality.

However, the cleanup contractor expanded the perimeter of the affected area because workers were seeing vegetation that was wilting and turning brown, Roberts said. The area that was most heavily affected is estimated to be about 30 to 40 acres. A mist of oil and salt water is believed to have extended no further than a mile in opposite directions of the well, affecting crop and pasture land.

Workers estimated they recovered about 200 barrels of each fluid as they got control of the well, Roberts said. The incident occurred during the evening of Aug. 14 and into the next day.


Cleanup crews placed absorbent booms to prevent the contamination from spreading to Long Creek, which empties into Lake Sakakawea. They also worked to cut and remove vegetation that was contaminated, Roberts said.

"By getting it out of there as quickly as possible, we will see very little impact to the soil itself," Roberts said.

Crews had completed the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process for that well and were completing the well for production when the blowout occurred, Roberts said.

The release of salt water and chemical solution is more devastating than an oil spill, Roberts said.

"A lot of times, if it's just an oil release, vegetation will have completely recovered by the next season," he said. "With a salt water release, if we don't handle it properly and quickly, that type of impact could last three years."

The company that controlled the well, Zavanna, which is based in Denver, is cooperating with the cleanup and being proactive, Roberts said.

Roberts said Zavanna also deserves a pat on the back for the design of its well site, which has a raised area similar to a racetrack around the site. That design helped contain the spill.

The company could face fines from the Department of Health or the Department of Mineral Resources, depending on the outcome of the investigation.


Zavanna did not return calls seeking comment.

Field inspectors from the Department of Mineral Resources are investigating what led to the incident, said spokeswoman Alison Ritter.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been advised of the spill but so far is not involved, Roberts said.

Wayne Biberdorf, a former Hess Corp. engineer who now serves as energy impact coordinator for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said a blowout incident is rare, and industry leaders will be studying this case. A blowout is an uncontrolled release of reservoir fluids into the wellbore.

"Even a small number is serious," said Biberdorf, who was not familiar with the specifics of this incident.

Roberts estimates that health officials have responded to about four or five blowout incidents in the past two years.

"It's very few, considering the number of oil wells that are being drilled and the ones that are already in existence," Roberts said.

Eric Brooks, assistant director for the Bismarck Area OSHA Office, said the victim worked for Steamboat Energy Consultants as an independent contractor who oversaw the operation of the workover rig.


The man was identified as 39-year-old Jason Pinasco of Higden, Ark.

As oil was spraying all over, workers moved their pickups away from the well, Brooks said. One of the pickups struck and killed Pinasco. Brooks said he did not have information about the driver's employer.

Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said his office considers the case an accident. The Williams County State's Attorney's Office was still reviewing the case on Monday.

This is the eighth workplace death from the oil and gas industry since Oct. 1 that the Bismarck Area OSHA Office has investigated.

Pinasco was married and had a son and daughter, according to an obituary published in Farmington, N.M. The obituary said he spent his career working in the oilfield.

"He loved his work and the wonderful people he met all over the states," the obituary reads.

A representative from Steamboat Energy Consultants referred questions to Zavanna.

Amy Dalrymple is a Forum Communications reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at adalrymple@forumcomm.com or (701) 580-6890.

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